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Confronting the legacy of slavery in Mauritania

Many Mauritanians are haunted by the practice which rules over their lives even after they have been freed

Growing up in the shadow of slavery, Salka Hmeida fought hard to create a different future from her ancestors, who worked, without pay, for decades. Seen as property, they were subject to the whims of their master, who owned them body and mind, with beatings and rape commonplace.

“It was hardest for women as many were sexually abused and then their children became slaves too,” she says. The horror of their suffering haunts Hmeida, who, like others from the marginalized Haratin ethnic group, lives with the legacy of slavery in Mauritania, which only outlawed the practice in 1981.

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Salka Hmeida

The north African nation, which sits between the rest of Africa and the Maghreb, was the last country in the world to criminalize slavery, but subsequent anti-slavery laws in 2007 and 2015 have failed to uproot the practice and tens of thousands still endure forced labor, rights groups say. 

Most of these are from the Haratin ethnic group, who make up 40 percent of the population. For hundreds of years, so-called ‘white moors’ – Arab Berbers who represent the country’s second-largest ethnic group, raided Haratin villages, enslaving men, women, and children. The darker-skinned Haratin adopted their religion, Islam, and looked up to their lighter-skinned masters, believing them to be of a superior caste in the natural order of things.

This mentality persists in Mauritania today, says Hmeida, with up to one in two Haratin still subject to forced labor without pay, according to local rights groups. Growing up, she witnessed their struggle to build better lives, with Haratin performing the most menial jobs and living in sidelined communities. “There is a lot of discrimination against the Haratin, they are still seen as the slave caste”, says Hmeida, who set up ONG Taghadoum to help those living with the stigma of servitude.

In deprived neighborhoods on the fringes of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, almost every Haratin family has stories of the physical and psychological suffering slavery has cast over their lives. Many survive without access to basic amenities like running water and electricity, trapped in a cycle of poverty that Mauritania’s social hierarchy makes it difficult to escape.  

Sexual health and human rights workshops led by Haratin Women
Sexual health and human rights workshops led by Haratin Women

With support from Ideas Beyond Borders, she is hosting sexual health and human rights workshops for Haratin women living in poverty and helping them to learn new skills so they can start small businesses to support their families. “Many of the NGOs that come to these neighborhoods focus on distributing food. No one cares about educating these people. We are trying to change that and build a more positive society,” she says.

ONG Taghadoum ran a project in 2018 teaching women living below the poverty line how to make shoes, supporting some to open small shops so they could provide for their families. One girl has been particularly successful, attracting media attention for her line of sandals. “Often these women are the only providers for their household. Many don’t attend school because they have to work instead,” Hmeida says.

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IBB sponsored workshop combatting sex slavery

Now, the organization is running a new campaign with help from Ideas Beyond Borders to address misinformation surrounding sexual health, which prevents many women from accessing jobs and education while negatively impacting their wellbeing. “Some people believe that pregnancy prevention methods cause cancer and infertility and many don’t know the dangers of back-to-back pregnancies. We counter this by providing real information about these subjects,” Hmeida says.

It’s difficult work, particularly in conservative communities where these subjects are rarely discussed. “Sex education is viewed as taboo in most of the countries we work in, especially for low-income areas where they have far fewer opportunities to obtain that knowledge through other means,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “We at IBB believe change comes from within and socioeconomic and language barriers shouldn’t stop someone from knowing about these crucial subjects that have a profound impact on quality of life.”

ONG Taghadoum sexual health workshops also cover female genital mutilation, which is widely practiced in Mauritanian society. Turnout has been high and Hmeida is confident that the sessions have changed the minds of many attendees about the practice. “Many women told us that they didn’t know the bad side effects of FGM,” she says. “Now they won’t do it to their daughters.”

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